Deadlines: Helpful or Harmful?

September is always a time for self-reflection. In a way, the start of the school year makes it feel like the end of the year, though not quite. I find myself thinking of the goals and deadlines I set for 2015. Back in January I wrote a post called The 7 Deadly Do’s and Don’ts of Deadlines, and I created a calendar of writing deadlines for myself.

Now nine months later, how is that going? Was setting self-imposed deadlines harmful or helpful to my writing process?

Let’s get the painful stuff out of the way first: I have not met my deadlines. What went wrong? Looking back on my 7 Do’s & Don’ts, it’s clear that I didn’t do Do #2 and take enough time to learn what works for me. Consequently, my deadlines were uninformed guesses of how long I thought the stages should take. I should also point out that my guesses were based roughly on writing screenplays, which are hella short compared to novels. The big bad result of all this is that I’ve been feeling like a stinking pile of failure for months now. I tried to follow Don’t #5 (don’t dwell on missed deadlines), but when all deadlines are missed, that’s kind of impossible.

From that perspective, deadlines (at least the chronically missed kind) are pretty harmful to my morale. But on the flip side, these deadlines give me focus and get my butt in my writing chair every day, so they’re helpful from the perspective of time spent writing.

Despite the tears and disappointment, I really do find deadlines helpful, I just need a new approach. So for all of the writers struggling with self-imposed deadlines (like me), here are 3 simple ideas for making deadlines work for you, not against you.

Deadlines-For Not Against

1. Create short-term deadlines. Daily, weekly and monthly at most. In my first deadline calendar, I had deadlines for the whole year! And when I missed one it shoved the others out of whack until my calendar was useless and I was a snivelling mess begging for Father Time to just stop the damn clock already and let me catch up! However, if I set deadlines within just a month, I can adjust when I realize something is taking longer than expected. For example, I can make the decision to push back other work in order to meet a writing deadline, or push back the deadline so nothing else in my life suffers. In essence, short-term deadlines help me focus on writing, but don’t stress me out by screwing up my whole year if I need to modify them.

2. Set goals for the next day. I find if I just stop writing the day before with no plan of attack for the next morning, I will sit at my computer getting orientated for like an hour or two, rereading what I wrote the day before and wondering, “What now?” But if at the end of the writing day, I spend a few minutes considering where I left off and brainstorm a plan for how to start the next day, I begin writing much sooner. For some people, this is as simple as “end in the middle of a sentence.” The idea being that you know how to finish that sentence and will just pick up where you left off and keep writing. For others, it’s flushing out the whole next scene. For me, it’s often deciding what my next story development stage is. For example: write character sketch for villain, or start outlining Act II, or update the beat sheet to reflect the changes I made to the heroine’s inner conflict. If I don’t plan this the night before, I’ll wake up all foggy-brained and waste time trying to decide what to work on. I don’t make decisions well in the morning, so nighttime pre-planning is essential. Best of all, these next-day goals are tiny deadlines that keep the writing moving.

3. Track your accomplishments. In my deadline spreadsheet I now have a column for what I actually accomplish. So even if I don’t meet the deadline to finish Act I, I note that I did write ten of the twelve scenes. Not only does that note make me feel like less of a failure, it helps me see patterns in my writing (i.e. I can write 10 scenes a week, but not 12), so when I make deadlines for the next month or the next book, I have a better chance of accomplishing them because I know how long it takes me to complete various stages of a novel.

And those are my three simple ideas for making deadlines work for me, not against me. What about you guys? How do you make deadlines productive and not soul-destroying?


Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

20 thoughts on “Deadlines: Helpful or Harmful?”

  1. I’m very good at meeting the deadlines that others set for me, but my own personal deadlines are seldom achieved..

    Ken Davenport, a Broadway producer, has a bit of wisdom that I adopted for my personal writing goals – “If you want to make a show happen, you book a theatre.” Before you have a cast, a team, a budget or even a script, if you set the goal to produce a show, you go ahead and book the theatre. Things have a magical way of coming together when faced with that sort of commitment.

    When I I really need to meet my own personal writing deadlines, I go ahead and book a table read with a group of actor friends. I commit to paying them in beer and munchies, and I create an event out of it, inviting other colleagues as guests.

    I never fail to show up with a script when I do this.

  2. I’ll have to try the small deadlines this week… I am finally, FINALLY *choir sings* at the END of my TO. DO. LIST. This has been almost 7 months of stressing over new projects and stuff… and I literally had nothing to do today but get caught up on Bloglovin’ and write an email. 😀

    Time to get writing again!

  3. I like this idea. Deadlines make me nervous, but I need something to push me forward. Although I must say I love the short term drive of Nano. I could not do that all year though.

    1. NaNoWriMo is a helpful deadline for a lot of writers, but I agree, the pace would be killer if you tried to keep that up all year! What I’m doing is preparing a solid outline pre-NaNo so I’m ready to just write in November. In that way, I’m using NaNo as a deadline to have my outline complete. So benchmarks like that are also handy.
      Thanks for the comment!

  4. I find deadlines motivating but only when I’m aiming to meet one imposed by either a contract or an agreement with a group. When I know someone is counting on me it helps my productivity. I admire those of you who can write a deadline date arbitrarily and be accountable to yourself. Even if you don’t always beat the deadline or meet your goal the way you meant to, you can see your growth and progress with the structure you’ve imposed. I like the monthly short term goal idea, but I need weekly reminders also. For example I could tell myself to do a chapter a week (rough draft) and by November I should have my entire novel draft done, instead of tweaking the first three chapters over and over as I have done for MONTHS. Now, if I could just find someone to keep me on task….?

    1. Finding a writing buddy to be accountable to is a great idea! If you don’t have someone in mind, there are lots of online critique groups where you could find someone. Good luck with the novel!

  5. I’m guilty of NOT doing the last one enough. Once it’s accomplished, it’s history, so it’s time to go on. I need to do a better job of stopping to take a grateful breath.

  6. I think a big key is to keep trying new approaches as you are doing. I struggle daily just trying to complete my ‘to do’ list.
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal – Impartial, Straightforward Fiction Book Reviews

  7. I think part of the key is keep trying new approaches as you’re doing. I make ‘to do’ lists but wonder how useful the list is since I miss so many of them. 🙂
    @dino0726 from 
    FictionZeal – Impartial, Straightforward Fiction Book Reviews

  8. I set goals instead of deadlines (same thing, but the wording tricks my muse.) Point three is something I started doing at the beginning of the year. 2014 was a pretty big bummer for me and I had no idea what I achieved. Keeping track of that has definitely been a moral booster.

    1. Glad to hear tracking accomplishments has boosted your morale! I’m going to do a full review of my accomplishments at the end of this year. That might make me feel better about myself. Maybe. Though this is the first year, so it will probably be more about learning about my writing habits. Thanks for the comment!

  9. This is basically what I do, and it has worked for a long time…except when I forget to track accomplishments, lol. I know it’s hard when you find that something hasn’t or isn’t working, but you’re learning and that’s a success right there!

  10. Excellent advice, Heather. I struggle to set myself deadlines, because I’m always sure to fail them! It’s not the same as working under pressure, or being in another working environment were deadlines are clear and based on achievability. They pretty much follow the guidance you’ve laid out. But sometimes, in an effort to push ourselves, we set goals without allowing ourselves the flexibility we need. So, you’re absolutely right. There has to be a balance. We need goals to work toward, but not ones which are overwhelming and in the end make us feel like a failure. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi, Melissa! I definitely agree that self-imposed deadlines are so different than work deadlines. And yes, writers tend to set deadlines to push ourselves, and perhaps we push ourselves into the realm of the unachievable, hence the frustration and disappointment. (I’m pretty sure I’m talking about me here. ;D )
      Thanks for the comment!

We love comments and questions.

%d bloggers like this: